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The Contemporary American Struggle with Derrick Adams

Hear Derrick Adams discuss his artworks included in SAM’s exhibition Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle. The exhibition reunites Lawrence’s revolutionary 30-panel series Struggle: From the History of the American People (1954–56) for the first time since 1958 and features contemporary art, all of which work together to question the stories we’ve been told by amplifying narratives that have been systematically overlooked from America’s history.

Derrick Adams’s (b. 1970) multidisciplinary practice probes the influence of popular culture on self-image, and the relationship between man and monument. Adams is deeply immersed in questions of how African American experiences intersect with art history, American iconography, and consumerism. He describes his two works in The American StruggleSaints March and Jacob’s Ladder—as a way to “contribute to conversations that expand on histories that are both Black American and American overall.” Saints March is a video considering the original American dance form of tap and contemporary street tap performance, while Jacob’s Ladder brings Lawrence’s personal archives into the gallery through a sculptural installation that lends optimism to the concept of struggle.

Jacob Lawrence’s Struggle series interprets the democratic debates that defined early America and echoed into the civil rights movements during which he was painting the series. Works by contemporary artists Derrick Adams, Bethany Collins, and Hank Willis Thomas engage themes of democracy, justice, truth, and the politics of inclusion to show that the struggle for expansive representation in America continues.

Muse/News: Wonder Boys, Men on Pointe, and Frankenthaler’s Poise

SAM News

The Seattle Art Museum is now open with the special exhibition Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle on view through May 23. KOMO’s Eric Jensen interviews curator Theresa Papanikolas about the Struggle series in a video for Seattle Refined.

Also on view at the museum: Barbara Earl Thomas: The Geography of Innocence. The Seattle Times’ Megan Burbank, Corinne Chin, and Ramon Dompor visit the celebrated Seattle artist’s first solo show at SAM, along with two special visitors: friends and portrait subjects Elisheba Johnson and her son Emery Spearman (whose portrait is titled, Wonder Boy).

“The struggle her work reckons with is more internal, cerebral, something every viewer is called upon to consider. ‘I create what I want from the other,’ she said. ‘So it’s not a space for you to go and just think about all the bad things that happen to Black people or happen to Black children. What about your own children? What about you?’”

Local writer Naomi Tomky for Condé Nast Traveler with a great weekend agenda for Seattle, including a stop at the Olympic Sculpture Park.

And finally, over the weekend, SAM’s Asian Art Museum invited the community to reflect on its steps at a memorial for those impacted by anti-Asian racism and violence. See stories from Capitol Hill Seattle Blog and KIRO.

Local News

What’s the Deal with That Immersive Van Gogh Installation?” asks the Stranger’s Jasmyne Keimig. She responds and makes recommendations for immersive art installations more worth your time.

NFT? We don’t get it, either, but Crosscut’s Margo Vansynghel looks into the booming—and controversial—world of crypto art.”

The Seattle Times’ Moira Macdonald speaks with Ashton Edwards, Pacific Northwest Ballet’s first male professional division student to take pointe technique classes, about traditional ballet’s possible gender-fluid future. Don’t miss the video by Ramon Dompor and Corinne Chin.

“The first time Ashton Edwards tried dancing on pointe, it felt like coming home. ‘It was just like magic. It felt beautiful on pointe. I felt like I could dance forever.’”

Inter/National News

There’s a new auction of photographs documenting missing paintings that Jacob Lawrence made while he was a war artist with the Coast Guard during World War II, Artnet’s Brian Boucher reports. The photographs could help unearth more original Lawrence works.

The Washington Post’s Peggy McGlone reports on the Smithsonian’s search for six—yes, six!—museum directors, which could “reshape the institution for generations.”

NPR’s Susan Stamberg on a new biography of Helen Frankenthaler by Alexander Nemerov; don’t miss the from-the-archives 1988 audio interview with the artist, too.

“Asked what the paintings are ‘about,’ the biographer says, ‘that lyrical moment of possibility in life, which is not unmixed with sadness and even grief. It’s about feeling the world.’”

And Finally

Muse/News recommends: Victor Luckerson’s Run It Back newsletter.

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Associate Director of Public Relations

Image: Wonder Boy, 2020, Barbara Earl Thomas, American, cut paper and hand-printed color backing, 40 x 26 in., Courtesy of Claire Oliver Gallery, photo: Spike Mafford.

Object of the Week: Bundle

Don’t imitate me;

it’s as boring

as the two halves of a melon.

– Basho, translated by Robert Hass

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Indeed, Tanaka Yu’s ceramic sculptures convincingly appear as vessels wrapped in knotted furoshiki (wrapping cloth). And still, even after we are made aware of the work’s materiality, it is difficult to see the object as anything other than a textile whose woven structure conceals an object underneath. Here, imitation serves another purpose.

For Yu, who studied oil painting before working in ceramics, this effect of concealment allows her to invoke that which is hidden, prompting her viewers to consider the sculpture’s purpose, and ideas of functionality versus non-functionality. Within the context of Japan’s centuries-long history and tradition of ceramics, too – firmly rooted in the functionality of the object –Yu’s conceptual sculptures turn utility on its head. 

However, for all its conceptual rigor, Yu’s Bundle series evidences a mastery of clay as well. Though the pieces appear to be slab-built, they are in fact coil-built. The artist, using Shigaraki-blended clay, deftly transforms the earthen material, exploiting its inherent and renowned plasticity, into a lightweight cloth. The distinctive yellow color, whose pigment is applied in thin layers by brush, further accents the newfound drapes and folds of the sculpture. The choice of color also refers to the type of yellow cloth often used to wrap a ceramic vessel within its storage box.

Yu’s Bundle, recently acquired by SAM, is a seductive work, and one that benefits from close looking, consideration, and reflection. The artist shows us that imitation, in this case, is far from boring, and can raise important questions about the use-value of objects and the functions they serve. 

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate

1Shigaraki is considered one of the “Six Ancient Kilns” in Japan. The clay found in the Shigaraki area is rich in iron and feldspar, among other compounds, that informs its unique texture and color once fired.

Images: Bundle, 2019, Tanaka Yu, Matte-glazed stoneware, 24 3/8 x 16 1/2 x 16 1/2 in., Gift of Gordon Brodfuehrer in honor of the Monsen family, 2020.21.3 ©️ Artist or Artist’s Estate Image courtesy of Joan B Mirviss LTD, photo: Kani Hazuki.

Muse/News: Witnessing America, Asian Restos Go Digital, and Calder Maquettes

SAM News

The Seattle Art Museum is open, with limited capacity and timed tickets released online every Thursday. Chamidae Ford reviews Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle for South Seattle Emerald, noting that the exhibition “takes us on a journey through American history, reframing the narratives we have heard for centuries.”

And Seattle Met’s Stefan Milne reviews American Struggle as well as the solo show, Barbara Earl Thomas: The Geography of Innocence, exploring how they both “witness America.”

“As different as can be, the two shows are rooted in a truth: How we see our past and our present are inextricable from how we see our future. That is, we’re still filling in frames, and might, with some attention, fill them in more honestly.”

SAM’s Olympic Sculpture Park is recommended by The Architect’s Newspaper as one of 11 “outdoor art spaces and museum grounds worth checking out this spring.” Take some allergy meds, mask up, and get out there!

Local News

Seattle Times columnist Naomi Ishisaka asks Karen Maeda Allman of Elliott Bay Books to recommend “15 books to read to learn more about Asian American history and experiences.”

Crosscut’s Brangien Davis is back with her weekly ArtSEA; this time, she visits Seattle’s new newsstand, previews the ByDesign festival, and some musical events.

Seattle Met’s Erin Wong with the story of how adult children of owners of Chinatown-International District restaurants are bringing their digital literacy to help the businesses during the pandemic crisis.

“Now, it’s the younger generations who are circling back to help their parents navigate the internet age. ‘This is just one thing I can do for my tribe, you know?’ [Carol] Xie says, ‘If that’s all it takes, I’m more than happy to do it.’”

Inter/National News

Hyperallergic says, Listen to the Sounds of an 18,000-year-old Conch.” Muse/News says, OK.

Catching up with gallerist Mariane Ibrahim, a Seattleite for a short and lucky-for-us time: in addition to her Chicago space, she is now expanding to Paris.

“The secret stunt doubles of the art world”: Peter Libbey for the New York Times on the seven maquettes—or models—of works by Alexander Calder made for MoMA’s new exhibition, Modern From the Start.

“Calder’s mobiles, whose orbits are eccentric, are particularly hard to anticipate. ‘I’ve never encountered a museum before that makes large, full scale cutouts for the actual gallery where the sculptures are going to go into,’ [Alexander S.C.] Rower said. ‘I think that’s amazing.’”

And Finally

A mural for the Storm.

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Associate Director of Public Relations

Installation view of Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle at Seattle Art Museum, 2021, photo: Natali Wiseman.

Object of the Week: Untitled #2

I hope I have made it clear that the work is about perfection as we are aware of it in our minds but that the paintings are very far from being perfect- completely removed in fact- even as we ourselves are.1

– Agnes Martin

In 1985, Agnes Martin painted Untitled #2. In her distinctive six-feet by six-feet scale, the painting’s composition balances washes of soft color with hand-drawn horizontal graphite lines. Lean in to look closely and you can see the imperfections of a human hand drawing with pencil. Lean back and the painting surrounds you with atmospheric bands of color and space.

This poem, like the paintings, is not really about nature. It is not about what is seen. It is what is known forever in the mind.2

– Agnes Martin

Martin believed that who we are shapes what we see. She thought that paintings could provide transformative and non-prescriptive experiences for the viewer. In her writings, she described that “the life of the work depends upon the observer, according to his own awareness of perfection and inspiration.”3 Rather than asking the artist, “What does this painting mean?” Martin asks the viewer to consider, “What does this painting mean to you?”

When we live our lives it’s something like a race – our minds become concerned and covered over and we get depressed and have to get away for a holiday. And then sometimes there are moments of perfection and in these moments we wonder why we ever thought life was difficult.4

– Agnes Martin

When I first saw Untitled #2 hanging in SAM’s galleries, I felt peace and wonder. The simplicity of the repeating forms encouraged me to stay still. Martin once wrote she liked a painting “because you can go in there and rest.”[5] Untitled #2 offered me that restful space––an opportunity to quiet the mind. I wonder as I write this, what this painting means to you. Is it one you walk by in the galleries or does it also draw you in? I like to imagine Martin would not care either way. She would just hope you found something that gives you a definite response, a moment of perfection, a chance to feel something new. 

Regan Pro, SAM Kayla Skinner Deputy Director for Education and Public Engagement


1 Agnes Martin, Writings, Pace Gallery, 1992, p. 15.
2 Agnes Martin, Writings, Pace Gallery, 1992, p. 15.
3 Ibid, p. 32.
4 Ibid, p. 31.
5 Ibid, p. 36.
Images: Untitled #2, 1985, Agnes Martin, paintings, acrylic on canvas, 72 x 72 in., Gift of The American Art Foundation, 95.39 © Agnes Martin. Waters, 1962, Agnes Martin, India ink on paper, 8 1/8 x 7 5/8 in., Gift of Margaret Smith, 84.186 © Agnes Martin. Untitled, 1963, Agnes Martin, gouache, ink, and graphite on paper, 8 7/16 x 8 1/2 in., Gift of Margaret Smith, 84.189 © Agnes Martin

In Solidarity with Our Asian Communities

SAM stands united with Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) and Asian immigrant families, friends, colleagues and communities locally and across the country, in the wake of rising violence against these communities over the last year and in the aftermath of the recent horrific shootings in Georgia that left eight people dead, six of whom were women of Asian descent. We join the larger Atlanta community and the country in mourning Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Ae Yue, Delaina Ashley Yaun, Paul Andre Michels, Xiaojie Tan, and Daoyou Feng.

In recognition of these lives taken so violently, we invite you to take a moment of silence on the steps of the Asian Art Museum. A community memorial will be available for the public to contribute to and visit from Noon on Saturday, March 27, through 5 pm Sunday, March 28.

American history reveals countless examples of systemic anti-Asian racism, from the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, to the 1924 Immigrations Act, to Executive Order 9066 in 1942. All of these federal actions had a major impact on Asian communities in Washington State and the Seattle region, resulting in loss of life, livelihoods, and property, and they are just a part of longstanding patterns of harassment and intimidation. A study on anti-Asian prejudice conducted this month by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, University of California, San Bernardino shows a 150% increase in hate crimes targeting Asian people, based on data from America’s largest 16 cities. Seattle and King County officials also report on this rise. Anti-Asian racism is a part of white supremacy that we must all work to defeat.

As a global museum, we always turn to art and artists to contextualize challenging moments and examine our history and society. Experiencing and engaging with art brings new perspectives to light and broadens understanding across cultures. SAM’s collection was founded in Asian art by the museum’s first director, Dr. Richard E. Fuller. After expanding to downtown Seattle, the original home of SAM was rededicated in 1994 as the Seattle Asian Art Museum and a center of Asian art and ideas. SAM’s Asian Art Museum is the only one of its kind in the Pacific Northwest. We understand our role as stewards of not only art, but also as an important place for Asian communities to come together and where people from all backgrounds can experience and appreciate a wide range of rich Asian cultures. 

In June 2020, following the killing of George Floyd and a massive social justice movement for Black lives, we were compelled to increase SAM’s commitment to combating institutional racism by establishing an Equity Task Force. This group of SAM board, staff, and community members worked over six months to conduct a self-assessment and provide recommendations for initiatives in specific operational areas. This work is ongoing as we continue to build on SAM’s commitment to fostering equity, diversity, and inclusion throughout the museum. 

The recent shootings in Georgia and escalating incidents of anti-Asian violence in Seattle and elsewhere strengthens SAM’s commitment and resolve to becoming an anti-racist institution. This is some of the most pressing and important work we are undertaking. As we take steps towards evaluating where we can improve and how we can better support the communities around us, the large and diverse Asian populations in Seattle and the surrounding areas, in addition to those on staff at the museum, are a crucial part of our conversations. SAM belongs to the communities it serves. 

Support Asian cultural organizations in the Seattle area and get involved.

API Chaya
Asian Counseling and Referral Service
The Future Ancient
International Examiner
Northwest Asian Weekly
Pride Asia
Stop AAPI Hate
Tasveer
Wilderness Inner-City Leadership Development
The Wing Luke Museum
Seattle Asian American Film Festival
Seattle Chinese Post
Seattle Chinese Times

Muse/News: Jacob’s Story, New Models, and a Will to Equity

SAM News

The Seattle Art Museum is open, with limited capacity and timed tickets released online every Thursday. Jasmyne Keimig of the Stranger reviews Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle, now on view at SAM.

“America’s persistence as a country and a project was not foretold. Rather, it was violently taken and sketched out, marked by slavery, genocide, war, and immense struggle experienced by those seeking their own freedom and those looking to impose their will on others. It’s a point hammered out in the rest of the series.”

KING’s Evening Magazine toured the exhibition, interviewing SAM curator Theresa Papanikolas. Thrillist recommends the show, and Artdaily also shares the news

The University of Washington’s Daily on the “revolution and inclusion” on view in the exhibition; they also shared details of a Lawrence seminar this spring. And they reported on the museum’s recent gift of Lang Collection artworks.

And with this nice weather, don’t forget to visit the Olympic Sculpture Park; The Expedition includes it on this list of “best sculpture gardens for families.”

Local News

First Hill’s Museum of Museums will finally open, reports Capitol Hill Seattle Blog. 

And the Wing Luke Museum reopened recently; Sean Harding for South Seattle Emerald checked in on how things are going. 

Crosscut’s Margo Vansynghel dives deep with a survey of local arts and culture organizations and how they’re faring, one year into the pandemic; she finds dramatic losses and tentative hope for new models. 

“The arts and culture industry has relied on old models and underpaid, overworked people for decades. Those models weren’t cutting it even pre-pandemic, says LANGSTON’s [Tim] Lennon. ‘The old ways were not that great for a lot of small organizations, artists and culture workers, especially those from BIPOC communities,’ he wrote.”

Inter/National News

Hyperallergic’s Sarah Rose Sharp shares the news that United States Artists (USA) president and CEO Deana Haggag will be stepping down for a position at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

PBS NewHour interviews Peabody Essex Museum curator Lydia Gordon about the two recovered panels of the Struggle series, both of which are now on view at SAM.

Tessa Soloman of ARTnews on how executive roles in equity and belonging are on the rise at museums; she interviews Rosa Rodriguez-Williams at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, Craig Bigelow at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, and others. The article references SAM’s appointment of Priya Frank to Director of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in August 2020. 

“Not all of this work requires funding—it’s about changes in procedure and process,” [Bigelow] said. “Too often there’s a default to slowing the work or stopping the work because there’s a perceived lack of funding. But this isn’t entirely about funding—it’s about will.”

And Finally

Oscar nominations have been announced; get going on your watch list!

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Associate Director of Public Relations

Installation view of Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle at Seattle Art Museum, 2021, photo: Natali Wiseman.

Object of the Week: Reduction

The most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan devastated the Tohoku (Northeast) region on March 11, 2011. The 9.0-magnitude temblor triggered a tsunami over 100-feet high, which in turn caused a meltdown at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima. Within just a few hours, several towns in the region were wiped off the map. It was horrifying.

The magnitude of the triple disaster was beyond measure, not only in terms of its physical devastation, but its psychological impact on Japanese people. Fears about radiation contamination are still present, even today. Many Japanese artists responded to the catastrophe in their own creative ways, but Kondo Takahiro (born 1958), a ceramic artist, was so shocked that he was unable to work for a while. He was compelled to think deeply about human survival and our relationship with nature.

Months later, Takahiro started making his Reduction series. Modelled on his own body, the sculptural figure sits in a meditative posture, as if in contemplation. According to the artist’s own commentary, the figure is pondering what the essence of the world is. He titled the series Reduction with a suggestion that devastating events like the 3.11 disaster could diminish the Japanese people. The glittery silver drops created by his patented “silver-mist” glaze can also be understood as a reference to the radioactivity in Fukushima. Between 2012 and 2017, Takahiro created 21 life-size ceramic sculptures for the Reduction series. Even though all 21 pieces were molded in the same shape, each figure has varied glazes, affording each its own unique look. The work in SAM’s collection is covered with a gray-green glaze, with a dripping bluish glaze throughout the surface—together, the combination recalls an ancient bronze vessel aged with patina.

Reduction is a timely work in response to disconcerting contemporary events, but the piece is also timeless, speaking eloquently to human conditions and our relationship with nature. It is currently displayed atop the restored 1933 fountain located in the heart of SAM’s Asian Art Museum: the Garden Court. Takahiro’s signature “silver-mist” glaze drips down the body like falling water, echoing the trickling water in the fountain. Natural light filters through the Garden Court ceiling, altering the sculpture’s color and appearance every instant. The setting resonates well with Reduction’s intention of examining our relationship with nature, as well as with the artist’s concept of ceramic art being a unity of water, fire, and earth.

As we commemorate the 10th anniversary of the 3.11 triple disaster, our battle against an unprecedented pandemic—one year after its outbreak—is not over. In such times of crisis, Reduction is a poignant reminder how fragile our world is, and how human beings have made it so.

Xiaojin Wu, Atsuhiko & Ina Goodwin Tateuchi Foundation Curator of Japanese and Korean Art

Images: Reduction, 2015, Takahiro Kondo, porcelain with blue underglaze and “silver mist” overglaze, 33 7/16 × 25 9/16 × 17 11/16 in., Robert M. Shields Fund for Asian Ceramics, 2019.5 © Takahiro Kondo. Installation view Asian Art Museum, 2020, photo: Natali Wiseman.

Who is Jacob Lawrence? The American Struggle Overview

Join Theresa Papanikolas, Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art, for an in-depth virtual exhibition overview of Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle, on view at SAM through May 23. Get to know Jacob Lawrence—a New Yorker, a University of Washington professor, a modernist painter, and an influential Black American artist—through this talk and by visiting SAM to see Lawrence’s revolutionary story. Advance tickets are required and are selling out so get yours soon, more tickets will be made available on a weekly basis, every Thursday. Speaking of Thursdays, starting April 1, First Thursdays at SAM are entirely free!

The American Struggle reunites Lawrence’s revolutionary 30-panel series Struggle: From the History of the American People (1954–56) for the first time since 1958, and SAM will be its only West Coast venue. Works by Derrick Adams, Bethany Collins, and Hank Willis Thomas engage themes of democracy, justice, truth, and the politics of inclusion to show that the struggle for expansive representation in America continues.

This talk was originally offered as a free SAM member-exclusive event. Interested in learning more about the perks of membership? Find out more about all the benefits you get when you join SAM.